Fantasy/Sci-Fi Focus (FSF): Hi Jan, congrats on the release of the third book in your trilogy. How does it feel to have it all out for the world?
Jan Kotouc (JK): It’s actually quadrilogy, there is going to be one more that’s being translated right now. But it feels great. We are on the right track and I’m glad most readers like it.
FSF: Oh wow that’s awesome! So I wanted to start at the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?, and describe the journey leading to your first published work.
JK: Oh wow. Well, since I was a kid I liked to tell stories. And even though I’m not a single child, I was always happiest playing alone, being all the characters in the story. So writing come out of that, I guess. Also both of my parents were TV writers (for Czechoslovakian TV) in the 1980s, so maybe there is little of the “genes” there as well.
My first stories were fanfiction, I wrote my first fanfic (for Star Wars) when I was 14. It was horrible, but I kept writing. Fanfiction is where I learned my craft.
Then along in 2007, I decided to stop with fanfics and start my own literary world. I wrote a novella which became Too Close An Encounter and submitted it to a Czech literary competition called Karel Capek’s Prize. I didn’t think much about it and started writing another story.
About 6 months later, the competition administrator sends me an e-mail that my novella won in it’s category and is going to be published in the annual anthology of winning works. I was happy of course, and continued writing the other story (which was turning into a novel).
The administrator send me another e-mail the next day saying: “Oh, by the way, I almost forgot: One of the judges for the competition was Mr. Egon Čierny from Poutník Publishing House and he wants to talk to you.”
He send me an e-mail few days later saying that he liked my novella and if I don’t have something he can publish. I said I have this other unfinished story. He asked to looked at it and then said: “Looks good, finish it up and we’ll publish it.”
That became the yet-not-translated novel Pokračování diplomacie (Continuation of Diplomacy) which was published in 2009. Since that time, I published 16 novels in Czech and 3 of them (plus the novella Too Close an Encounter) were translated into English.
FSF: And what is it about Sci-Fi that fascinates you most, to make it your genre of choice?
JK: I guess every author write those genres they themselfs enjoy to read. I was growing up on Star Wars and Star Trek and loves sci-fi authors (my greatest inspiration was David Weber).
I also love history, so that’s why I dabble in writing alternate history as well.
FSF: Does your personal life influence your characters? Are any of them based on yourself or others you know?
JK: My personal life is very boring, so not much influence there. I guess the protagonists are influenced by my worldview of course, as is true with most writers.
As for being inspired by other people, not in the way you mean, but many characters are named for example after people who’ve supported my indiegogo campaign three years ago and getting Red Shirted or Tuckerized was one of the rewards.
FSF: How was the process of having your work translated from Czech to other languages? Do you feel the translations have remained faithful?
JK: I’ll start with the second question first: Yes, the translation is faithful. The advantage of being fluent in English is that I can read the translation and see if there are any discrepancies. Our typical process with Isabel (my translator) is that she translates three chapters and sends it to me to go over it, I make my comments, we go back and forth several times and then we finalize it.
I like to say that as the author, I have the last word in any disagreements. Of course, my last word usually is “okay then”
When I decided to find a translator, I went to a facebook page called the Czechlist (pun intended), a Czech site for translators from Czech to English (and others). I posted something along the lines: “Hi, I’m a Czech writer of SF and I’m looking for someone to translate my book into English!”
Within 2 hours, I had 5 volunteers, so I did something I’ve never imagined myself doing, I conducted interviews (and of course, I had everyone translate a sample). From that process came Isabel Stainsby and we’ve been working together on three novels so far.
FSF: What are some of the authors, books, and other media sources that have influenced your work?
JK: Oh gosh, there are tons of them. The closest thing I have to an autuhor mentor, would be David Weber, the author of the Honor Harringtoon and Safehold series (among many other). I also love books by Timothy Zahn, Aaron Allston, Lois McMaster Bujold, Czech author duo Jan Hlávka and Jana Vybíralová, Slovakian fantasy author Juraj Červenák. I also always enjoyed Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books and dozens of others I haven’t mentioned.
And of course, I grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek, enjoyed Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica and played lots of RPG games like Mass Effect, Dragon age and Fallout. And again, zillion others I haven’t mentioned.
FSF: Now let’s turn this around. As an obvious lover of Sci-Fi, what indie Sci-Fi novels could you recommend to our audience?
JK: To be honest, the line between indie and “trad pub” books gets blurry for me. Marko Kloos has a great SF series Terms of Enlistment and he started as an Indie. I also would recommend novels by NIck Webb, Joshua Dalzelle or Nick Stephenson (his SF series is now undergoing rebranding, so it may not be up when this interview comes out, I’m not sure). Chris Kennedy also published lots of great books by himself and by other as an indie publisher. And we shoudln’t forget that the brilliant hard SF novel Martian by Andy Weir has also started as an indie novel.
FSF: How important is reader interaction to you as an indie author, and how do you most prefer to network with your readers?
JK: I’ve always enjoyed interacting with readers, I’ve had my Czech author page since 2011. I figured out that my readers have similar hobbies to me so I post also stuff about my life and non-writing things, but of course also about writing. I run contests and I’ve also asked for volunteers many times to became a redshirt characters in my books. That’s been very popular. And my English-language edition came out mostly thanks to my readers and friends who supported my crowdfunding at Indiegogo in 2018.
FSF: So what’s next for you in the coming year? What can readers look forward to?
JK: My translator Isabel Stainsby is working on Book 4 of the Central Imperium series. That’s going to close the story that started in Frontiers of the Imperium (yes, I like finishing series). I’ll return to that world thought with a sequel series I’m planning. We also have a short story translated that’s going to be published as a companion to an sci-fi-themed international cybersecurity competition hosted by the Czech Technical University.
Along with a writer Lucie Lukačovičová, we are also working on a short story for one long-running alternate history series but I don’t know if I can talk about it yet.
That’s for the English language thing. I’m also working on my novels in Czech – which may be translated later. One is a standalone sci-fi from present day – something like an Independence Day in the Czech Republic – and then I’d go back to the Central Imperium universe.
FSF: Sounds like a busy time! So I like to end all of my interviews with this question. What advice could you offer to new and aspiring authors?
JK: Don’t give up. The most useful commodity for a new writer is a perseverance. You can always improve your writing or find a way to get published. Don’t give up, keep writing and keep getting better!